Flames were racing towards the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians’ rancheria lands. Homeowners tapped into fire hydrants to wet down their rooftops; elders demanded to stay put. Tribal staff frantically coordinated evacuation and relief efforts, posting updates on social media and reaching out to neighboring tribal bands.
Big Valley was in the third day of their annual intertribal tule festival when the Ranch and River fires began, two blazes that would eventually merge into the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, California’s largest wildfire on record at the time.
“People were having trouble breathing on the rancheria,” recounted Sarah Ryan, Environmental Protection Director for the Big Valley Band. “We have a lot of people with asthma and respiratory illnesses. We went to the local stores and tried to get some air purifiers, but everybody was sold out.”
A neighboring tribe, the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians, helped Big Valley acquire seventy air purifiers, sent in “from all over California for us,” related Ryan.
California landscapes were tended by Indigenous experts long before settlers dispossessed and massacred tribal members, shrank wildlife habitat and banned cultural burns — low-intensity fires set intentionally by Indigenous Peoples to reduce pest infestations and fuel loads on wildlands. Today, tribes throughout California work closely with academics, private landowners, state and federal agencies to return prescribed fire to the land, promoting native habitats and fire-resilient ecosystems.
Still, current levels of agency-prescribed burns and tribal cultural burns are too low to make a significant impact on millions of acres left untended for a century and a half. As a result, tribes today encounter a surge of catastrophic wildfires their great-grandparents never experienced. When fires sweep through Indigenous territories, tribes face unique and often heightened challenges, due to their distinct relationships to the land and the lack of understanding of tribal customs and priorities by non-Native government officials.
Tribes Face Unique Challenges During and After Wildfires
California is home to over two hundred distinct tribal communities; roughly half are federally recognized and a third are based on reservations or rancherias. For tribes who still occupy or have access to ancestral lands, the devastation of wildfires reaches far beyond the loss of homes and businesses. Culturally significant wildlife, waterways and ceremonial sites are impacted. Multi-generational fishing holes, hunting areas and wild-tended sites for basketry materials and medicines are destroyed. Modern facilities are lost too; the Dixie Fire destroyed the Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians’ tribal offices, health clinic, dental services, environmental protection offices and fire station, exponentially compounding pandemic stressors.
“First we had fire, then we had COVID, then we had a fire again,” said Karuk tribe member Alice Lincoln Cook, describing an all-too-familiar pattern of unending crises for many rural and forested communities.
Whereas the average US citizen receives $26/year in FEMA aid, the average tribal citizen receives $3/year, in part because most tribes don’t have the administrative capacity to address complex bureaucratic requirements necessary to receive federal aid. Tribes have special jurisdictional standing, but they often lack the bandwidth to complete paperwork like Hazard Mitigation Plans, which must be resubmitted and reapproved every five years, to become eligible for FEMA funds.
Gaming tribes with large casinos have even less access to federal resources, because their assets are treated as “dollars in the bank,” even when these tribes have suffered significant economic losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not all of the devastation on reservation lands is caused by the flames themselves. Local, state, and federal agencies' lack of familiarity with Native lands has often led to interference with tribal evacuation efforts and unnecessary destruction of culturally sensitive habitat.
“We were evacuating elders to the coast so they wouldn’t be breathing the air,” recounted Ryan, “and we were trying to track who was being evacuated, and who was staying put. Law enforcement guarding the roads into the rancheria wouldn’t let tribal staff in [to check on, or help evacuate tribal members], because they were using officers from somewhere else, and those officers didn’t know anybody local. That was a huge stressor. We couldn’t get our water plant facilities staff onto the rancheria; or when they went out to get supplies, they couldn’t get back in. It was horrible.”
When the 2020 Slater and Devil Fires burned through Karuk territory, Earl Crosby, Deputy Director of the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources’ Watersheds Branch, witnessed how “Pacific Power & Light ran roughshod over people and places within and around Happy Camp in the Trinity mountains. Their clearing of right-of-ways to restore power took out any tree, live or dead, hardwood or softwood, that got in the way of power lines.” Culturally significant black oaks were cut and dumped without tribal consultation.
We had another sacred site bulldozed during wildfire this year despite having agreed upon mitigation measures in place… Some people just don’t care about us or our culture… and some of these people are in positions power… unfortunately many of them are on bulldozers… https://t.co/jUxctDpsZz— Bill Tripp (@CulturalFire) October 17, 2021
During efforts to combat the Dixie Fire, Mountain Maidu elder and basketweaver Shiweya Peck elected to stay on her ancestral lands. When the smoke cleared and she went to inspect her property, what she saw angered her even more than the fire.
“They made a bulldozer line up the hill on my grandfather’s place, up where I walk and gather, and took out a beautiful oak tree and a conifer tree. They dozed those trees down when they didn’t need to. They already had a bulldozer trail up the mountain; they didn’t need another one. They ruined and scarred the area. If I’d known what they were doing, I would have gone up there and screamed for them to stop,” she related.
In Butte County, representatives of the Mechoopda Tribe, Berry Creek Rancheria of Maidu Indians, Mooretown Rancheria of Maidu Indians and the Alpine County-based Hung A Lel Ti Washoe Tribe stormed a government disaster recovery task force meeting in February 2020, demanding a designated share of the work in the post-fire cleanup efforts. Citing the need for tribal consultation and specialized knowledge of local ecosystems, they condemned the costly, temporary influx of out-of-area workers when tribal and other community members lacked employment and could benefit from participating in the tree removal contracts.
Tribes Help Tribes (And Neighboring Communities) Respond to Fires
To address the significant gaps between tribal needs and available assistance, even the smallest tribes do whatever it takes to care for their members. After the 2014 Happy Camp Complex Fire in the Klamath National Forest, the Karuk Tribe procured trailers for members who lost their homes. Mountain Maidu elders stranded by the 2021 Dixie Fire in the Sierras were routinely visited by tribal staff, who checked on their health and delivered groceries and other supplies.
“[Greenville Rancheria Assistant Fire Chief] Danny Manning checked on all the people who did not evacuate…I gave him a food list and he brought back what we ordered. We were landlocked with fire on every side of us! But he had an official government pass and could get through while all the roads were closed due to the fire,” recounted Shiweya Peck.
Wildfire incidence in California has increased 500% since 1972, and it is not uncommon for over fifty percent of a given county’s landmass to burn in the space of one generation — a reality for Ventura, Monterrey, Lake and Glenn Counties. Tribal nations are more likely than other ethnic communities to be located in remote wildland areas, and when Native Americans are hit with a wildfire, they experience the most long-lasting impacts. Still, tribes respond to wildfire disasters in ways that benefit other tribes and non-Indigenous communities far beyond their reservation borders.
The San Pasqual Band of Diegueño Mission Indians and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians are two of many California tribes with their own fire departments: each has dozens of employees, state-of-the-art fire stations and training centers. The San Pasqual Reservation Fire Department recently established the first Native American Accredited Fire Academy in the USA, a national platform for Native Americans and others to become certified firefighters while simultaneously learning fire-related tribal customs and traditions.
This fire season, the San Manuel Band sent a brush engine, water tender and six firefighters to the Washoe Tribe in Redding to help fight the MacFarland fire. In past years, the San Manuel Band stepped up to provide charitable donations to fellow tribal nations, including tribes hundreds of miles away. In 2019 they raised and coordinated $1.1 million in wildfire relief funds (including $100,000 from Northern California tribes — the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians and Dry Creek Rancheria — to help Southern Californian tribes), a full radio system for the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians, and $50,000 in aid for beds, air purifiers and emergency air radios for the Yurok Tribe. Both the San Manuel Band and the Redding Rancheria donated recovery funds to the Berry Creek Rancheria of Tyme Maidu and Mooretown Rancheria of Maidu Indians following the 2020 North Complex fires.
After the fall 2007 California firestorm hit Southern California, the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians partnered with other tribes to help rebuild homes and repair drinking water systems, ultimately creating the InterTribal Long Term Recovery Foundation. This disaster relief clearinghouse continues its work today, led by a dozen cooperating Luiseño, Kumeyaay, Cahuilla, Diegueño and Pala tribal bands.
When the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fires impacted a dozen Pomo tribes in Northern California, the Coyote Band of Pomo Indians opened up their gymnasium to serve as a shelter for everyone in the community to come for free meals, water and a smoke-free environment. The Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians did the same for communities in Lake County, providing their casino as an official, government-recognized Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for the area. This enabled all tribes in the area to be included in official disaster response networks in ways they hadn’t been before.
Given the exponential rise in catastrophic wildfires in California, local, state, and federal agencies — and the communities they serve — stand to benefit by recognizing and redressing historical wrongs and incorporating tribal nations as partners in every aspect of the fire response.
Tribal folks have to endure so much more just to get on fire assignments, we don’t have the resources like government entities, the USFS. But we don’t give up and we know these places like no one else, and there isn’t a training for that it’s just how we are💛— ❤️🔥vikki❤️🔥 (@_vpreston) October 19, 2021
Decades of tireless advocacy by tribes to legitimize and expand prescribed burning is finally paying off with the recent passage of Senate Bill 332, limiting liability damages for cultural fire practitioners, and the introduction of Assembly Bill 642, which would require the appointment of cultural burning liaisons to the State Board of Fire Services. For tribes, while cultural burning to mitigate future fires is of primary importance, so are evacuation and post-fire recovery efforts.
“Now that tribes are invited to participate in the EOCs, we’re at the same level as cities for reporting out,” said Sarah Ryan. “When a tribe is on the EOC report-out list, they participate in calls and say 'this is what we need, this is what we have.' Being part of the decision-making process, hearing official updates from the horse’s mouth and being able to articulate tribal needs is a big deal given all the fires we’re experiencing,” explained Ryan.
Kenneth Shoji contributed to this article.